It was a tough decision.

The contest question was: What are the best signs that a bank is "in play" - that management and the board are likely to try to sell it soon.

Two readers sent in such good replies that we've decided to make both of them president for a day of the Schmidlap National Bank, with certificates to prove it. (We'll let them fight it out as to who gets what date.)

Co-winner Richard B. Foster Jr., a lawyer in Okemos, Mich., gave these seven examples of banks likely to be sold soon:

*The bank that announces it is going into a major new business in which it has no experience.

*The closely held bank a large block of whose shares - for which there is no active market - is the principal asset of an elderly shareholder in poor health.

*The bank that has expanded beyond it capital and management resources in a rapidly growing market.

*The bank whose directors look only backward - for example, by reviewing historical data like financial statements or the past performance of the chief executive officer - instead of looking to the future.

*The bank whose directors don't regularly ask the CEO questions like "Why are we doing this?" "What is the down side of this plan?" and "What type of reaction can we expect from those who will be affected by our plan?"

*The bank whose management, with or without the knowledge of its board, regularly thumbs its nose at the bank's federal or state regulators.

Our second winner, Union Bank's Michael Cunningham in Los Angeles, is obviously a follower of David Letterman.

Mr. Cunningham offer this list of the top 10 signs that sale is imminent:

"10. Bank's attorney orders new, higher-capacity billing meter.

"9. Bank has sudden promotional campaign with emphasis on distribution of all remaining ballpoint pens, key rings, and other logo items.

"8. Increased sightings of strangers in dark blue suits even, though no services scheduled at local funeral home.

"7. Topic of conversation at local barber shop has switched from family values to book values.

"6. All copies of books on resume writing have been checked out from library around the corner.

"5. Board members ask for second helpings and doggie bags at latest directors' dinner.

"4. Chief executive officer, if a large shareholder, is seen in travel agency with several brochures on world travel.

"3. Chief executive officer is seen in travel agency checking on lowest fares to get out of town.

"2. Ad pages on employment opportunities have already been torn from American Banker by the time copy is routed to you.

"1. You just sold your last shares of the bank's stock in order to buy your broker's latest hot idea. Our New Contest

Most community bankers will acknowledge that often a small event or decision can affect the bank more than some major policy change or service decision.

A favorite example (I am sure I have mentioned in this column before) was the way a cash manager of New Jersey's First Fidelity Bank helped New Jersey Bell cut the float time on getting phone-bill payments into the company's deposit account.

The manager suggested that the phone company send red return envelopes to customers who usually run up large bills; send blue envelopes to the rest; and open the red ones first.

As the song says, "Little things mean a lot." And that's our new contest.

Tell us some small development or event that played a big role in your bank's success or profits - or about a glitch that hurt a lot more than you thought it would.

The writer of the best entry becomes president for a day of the Schmidlap National Bank.

Mr. Nadler is a contributing editor of the American Banker and professor of finance at the Rutgers University Graduate School of Management.

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